His name in the United States is synonymous with opera, and the warmth of his artistry has brought joy to millions. Blessed with the sort of voice that comes around perhaps once in a century, Luciano Pavarotti placed his unique tenor instrument at the service of the great composers, revitalizing opera in our time and bringing beauty to generations of music lovers. “He projects like a searchlight, and he is all heart,” the Chicago Sun-Times proclaimed, echoing the feelings of audiences everywhere who have heard this man. “You listen to him and you love him.”
Pavarotti generously returns that love, and he has done so throughout an extraordinary career that must count as one of the most thrilling spectacles in modern culture. The year 2001 marks the 40th anniversary of Pavarotti’s opera debut, and the impact of his artistry is enormous: performances throughout the world that are the stuff of opera history, unforgettable appearances as part of the Three Tenors who have brought unprecedented popularity to the repertory, tireless charity work for the United Nations, and a treasure trove of musical memories. “I think a life spent on music is a life beautifully spent,” the great tenor believes, “and this is what I have devoted my life to.”
He was born in Modena, Italy, where he received his first music lessons from his father Fernando and he gained his first musical experience with the Modena Choir. Lessons with Arrigo Pola and later with Ettore Campogalliani who refined the young tenor’s phrasing and concentration. In 1961, the same year he got his driver’s license, he won the internationally coveted Achille Peri Prize and shortly afterwards made his professional debut in Reggio Emilia in La Boheme. He was a hit, and he was soon engaged to sing Puccini’s Rodolfo throughout Italy. Verdi’s Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto followed, and within a year the young tenor was discovered by the great Italian conductor Tullio Serafin: Pavarotti’s performances under Serafin’s direction at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo set the stage for what was to be a stellar international trajectory.
In 1963, Pavarotti was called on in short notice to substitute for an ailing Giuseppe Di Stefano in La Boheme at Covent Garden as well as in the popular television show “Sunday Night at the Palladium.” This double-header of a London debut brought the Italian tenor to the attention of Decca, where the young conductor Richard Bonynge asked Pavarotti to sing with his wife Joan Sutherland. That marked the beginning of one of the most sublime partnerships in vocal history.
It was opposite Sutherland that Pavarotti made his United States debut, in Richard Bonynge’s 1965 production of Lucia di Lammermoor for the Miami Opera. The Sutherland-Pavarotti-Bonynge trio teamed up again for La Sonnambula at Covent Garden, followed by an Australian tour that included La Traviata, La Sonnambula, and Lucia di Lammermoor. 1965 also marked Pavarotti’s debut at La Scala, as he joined his childhood friend Mirella Freni for La Boheme under Herbert von Karajan.
But it was at the Metropolitan Opera in New York that Pavarotti’s stardom was assured. His 1972 Met performances of The Daughter of the Regiment proclaimed Pavarotti as the first tenor to sing the famous and fiendishly difficult nine consecutive high Cs required of Donizetti’s Tonio in full voice instead of falsetto. Critics and audiences raved, Pavarotti was nicknamed “King of the High Cs,” and a new era was born. His 1977 portrayal of Rodolfo in La Boheme on the first ever “Live from the Met” telecast attracted the largest audience up to that time for televised opera. It proved to be just the beginning of Pavarotti’s crusade for the mainstreaming of opera in the United States, followed by over a dozen television broadcasts from Lincoln Center. In 1993, 500,000 fans enjoyed his performance live in New York’s Central Park while millions watched on television.
The rest is history. Role after leading role followed as Pavarotti put his stamp on the tenor repertory all over the world, in virtually every major theater from Berlin to Paris, from San Francisco to Moscow, from Chicago to Peking, with a roster of colleagues that boasts all the finest singers and conductors of our time. His repertory is vast and includes Madama Butterfly, Idomeneo, Manon, La Gioconda, Tosca, Un ballo in maschera, Luisa Miller, I Puritani, Der Rosenkavalier, Il trovatore, La Favorita, Andrea Chenier, Aida and Ernani, among others. His recorded Decca legacy, with more than one hundred titles and growing, has made him the best-selling classical artist of the recording industry.
His recitals in parks and stadiums normally reserved for rock concerts revolutionized the way audiences experience vocal music, first with Pavarotti’s now legendary 1984 Madison Square Garden concert, then in 1990 when he joined Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo in Rome on the occasion of the World Cup. That concert, sung on a lark among friends and sports fans, proved an immensely satisfying experience to singers and song lovers alike: The Three Tenors, who reunite regularly to make great music, remains one of the most original and popular chapters in opera history. “We make these concerts to reach a lot of people,” says Pavarotti. He does just that, and he leaves few hearts untouched. Luciano Pavarotti, legendary singer, humanitarian, died in 2007 of pancreatic cancer.
luciano pavarotti smoking cigar
Luciano Pavarotti at Llangollen during his first visit with a choir from his home town, in 1955
After performing at Massey Hall, Pavarotti was the guest of honour at the a fund-raiser for the women’s committee of Columbus Centre. The tenor is seen Jan. 17, 1982 with committee members Georgina Madott, left, and Cathy Bratty. (FRANK LENNON / STAR FILE PHOTO)